You remember that "dream sequence" from "Dallas," the season opener in which we learned Bobby Ewing hadn't been killed off and written out of the show the previous season. Having decided to return to soap opera, Bobby's "death" turned was re-presented as a dream in which he merely thought he'd perished. Routine work for a certain type of screenwriter.
In that spirit, Leonard Asper did not preside over a colossal business failure, the late 2000s collapse from over-indebtedness of CanWest Global Communications Corp. CanWest in its heyday was the largest media conglomate in Canada. Its holdings ranged from the Global national TV network to Canada's major dailies in Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal, among others. And there was CanWest's Atlantis Alliance group, the country's biggest feature-film distributor and owner of a clutch of specialty cable channels.
The demise of CanWest was, to hear Leonard tell it in today's Globe, an accident, a sort of Halley's Comet confluence of unfortunate timing, suboptimal luck and the inevitable outside cosmic forces over which one sadly has minimal influence.
Yet for other observers, CanWest did implode, a couple years back, as it had to. You don't buy $3.2 billion worth of newspapers, an industry the analysts have long described as being in "secular decline" (i.e. permanent) with borrowed money from Conrad Black. (Actually, you don't buy anything from Conrad Black.)
This Leonard and his late father did in 2000, at the top of the media market - then caught up in a delusional concept known as "media convergence." Subsequently, the then-named AOL Time Warner took one of the biggest writeoffs in history (and its fired CEO took up Zen meditation in an undisclosed location). Staid phone utility BCE took a bloodbath writedown on its Teleglobe purchase and cashiered its CEO. Quebecor Inc. was forced to part with most of its founding printing business rather than slip under the waves from an overpriced purchase of the Videotron cable giant, Tribune Co. went bankrupt almost to the year after it bought L.A. Times owner Times Mirror. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News of Denver printed their last editions. New York Times Co. took a $400-million writedown on its Boston Globe purchase. The Bancroft family threw in the towel at Dow Jones & Co., selling America's largest daily, the Wall Street Journal, to (gasp) Rupert Murdoch...
Conrad Black wisely dumped Canada's largest newspaper chain, accounting at its peak for more than 50% of Canadian daily newspaper circulation - a status unequalled among supposedly mature countries - ahead of the Internet-driven chaos in traditional newspapers, compounded by a spectacular ad drought. Unwisely, Black's firms had accumulated sufficient debt that finding a sucker in the Aspers turned out not to be quite sufficiant salvation, Shenanigans ensued. Black ultimately was consigned a cell at the Coleman Federal Corrections Institute near Orlando.
But, you see, none of the above actually happened. It was a dream sequence. Or, at least, the CanWest part was. Leonard Asper is allowed to go on about his uneventful past - in which creditors didn't take a bath, ordinary shareholders weren't wiped out, and hundreds of employees rendered jobless - at extraordinary length in a chirpy profile in today's Globe and Mail. A few quotes convey the gist:
I have enough friends in the financial and business world who know what happened, and no one is saying to me, 'You screwed up'.
I don't spend five seconds thinking about debt any more. I spend my entire life thinking abut growing a company and that makes me very happy.
The "company" in question is Asper's modest 30% stake in a new fight-related specialty cable channel in a sports-broadcast field already crowded with TSN, Sportsnet, the Golf Channel, a racecar channel...But Asper has not five seconds thought of how his CanWest pissed away Dad's lifelong pursuit of shifting Canada's media centre of gravity from loathsome Toronto to the Aspers' hometown of Winnipeg.
I know these mental tricks happen. For instance, it was once reported that a tapped-out Reichmann family was sanguine about losing First Canadian Place, Manhattan's World Financial Center and London's Canary Wharf and were contentedly operating kosher vending carts in North Toronto. Mind, that report appeared next to a suburban Austin UFO sighting in the World Weekly News, so I can't attest to its veracity.
We were always treated unfairly [by other media] but I'm sure every CEO feels that way. Still, the sheer quantity of coverage was out of proportion. We were a mid-sized Canadian company - we weren't the TD Bank.
My favorite. It's not like I was running Microsoft or Seimens or Toyota or some large, important company. Only the biggest media conglomerate in a G8 country, is all. Or perhaps Mr. Asper really has forgotten, in which case I need the name of his shrink.
Oh, and the media coverage of Leonard's ceaseless search for open manholes to drop into? The harsh criticism was overwhelmingly from stock market analysts who watched your Dad's once reliably lucrative enterprise experiementing with novel self-inflicted wounds, seldom missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity to get its books in order. And trust me, Leonard, there's some odd behavior by you and brother David that got scant attention, otherwise you'd be pelted with eggs on stepping outdoors.
Hey, business reversals happen. You take the blame, you commit certain lessons to memory, and move on. What a dismal contrast Leonard presents with David Neeleman, Mickey Drexler, Lee Iacocca, even Steve Jobs, fessing up in time to the mistakes that got them fired as CEOs of Jet Blue, Gap Inc., Ford Motor and Apple, respectively. Accompanied, helpfully, by introspection we all can learn from their their harrowing experiences.
Even Harold Camping (video) has (sort of) admitted to being wrong. He got his dates wrong. The world will end October 21, not May 21.